The decision to make cookery lessons compulsory for children aged between 11 and 14 is to be welcomed. Predictably, some teaching unions claim the curriculum is already far too rigid and that this latest initiative will mean hard-pressed staff finding it even more difficult to tailor lessons to individual needs.
I think they are wrong – but so too are details of how the scheme will work. When you look at what is actually being proposed, it's too little, too late. Cookery is already compulsory in primary schools: starting this September, every 11- to 14-year-old attending a school which already offers lessons in food technology will have to spend one hour a week on practical cookery for one term during their first three years.
Schools which don't have kitchens and specialist staff (about 15 per cent of them) will be surveyed, and money handed to those who need it most. The government will train 1,000 specialist staff and teaching assistants. The new cookery lessons, as well as teaching a "top eight" range of popular dishes, will include diet and nutrition, hygiene and sensible food shopping.
My partner teaches food technology in a special school on the outskirts of Greater London, and within a matter of months has encouraged all the pupils (aged from 8 to 15, all of whom have been excluded from other schools) to cook (and eat) a huge range of dishes – risotto, cakes, quiches, pasta, chicken dishes and others. The first thing he did was treat pupils like chefs. They wear whites and have a tea break halfway through a two-hour lesson, where they sit together and drink a whole range of teas out of cups and saucers. He has never had to exclude anyone from lessons. Learning how to cook is a big subject that can change young people's lives in a whole variety of ways – and pupils can go home and pass on what they've learnt.
You can't teach practical cookery in an hour. It limits the number of dishes you can tackle, and becomes just something to be rushed through. At least five minutes at the beginning of any class are spent getting youngsters to concentrate and settle down. Cookery is a fantastic way to teach children (especially those from deprived backgrounds and with absent parents) all sorts of other disciplines – from manners to respect, geography and social values. You can even use it to teach another language. The concept of food technology classes was always flawed because it focused on preparing kids to wrap sandwiches in a supermarket or carry out menial tasks in the catering industry. It had too much input from supermarket chains and was nothing to do with cooking as part of daily life.
The government set a low target of two hours a week for all children to participate in sport (we rank 15 out of 20 in the EU when it comes to time spent doing sport at school) and their plans for cooking are an equally pitiful gesture.
Secondary schools are places where there is huge pressure to pass exams – in my day cookery was only compulsory up to the end of the first year. By the time I'd mastered everything starting with the letter A, from sewing an apron to apple crumble, I was ordered to substitute Latin and then Spanish from year two, and it took me until the age of 25 to be able to cook a real meal.
So please – extend the hours cookery is taught in primary schools and make cookery compulsory for two-hour lessons every week throughout the first year of secondary school. After that, it's too late.
How Heath graced my street
The death of Heath Ledger deprives Terry Gilliam of one of the stars of his latest fantasy epic, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which has been shooting at night about 50 yards from my front door in London. The cast includes Christopher Plummer and Lily Cole and the costumes were suitably exotic – Ledger wore a pierrot's outfit, while Plummer, had his face painted white and sported a red blob on his forehead.
The $30m (£15m) epic tells a convoluted story – typical of Gilliam – of a travelling theatre troupe whose leader is in a pact with the devil. Ledger's sad death will hardly impede the plot – Gilliam's recent work is famous for being incomprehensible to all but his most dedicated fans.
* I know it's controversial, but I can't stand charity walks where hundreds of people march through the landscape at the same time, eroding footpaths in the name of fund-raising.
Personally, I go to the countryside for a spot of peace and quiet and prefer to donate to charity anonymously – why does it have to involve a massive public demonstration to be worth something? Officials at the Lake District National Park agree, and have launched a campaign to limit the number of people who take part in the Three Peaks Challenge every year after complaints from local residents.
To climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, people start in Scotland between 5pm and 10pm, ascend the mountain in the dark, and then arrive in the Lake District from 3am in convoys of vehicles ferrying groups of several hundred in all weathers, causing severe erosion as they fan out on either side of the footpath up the fell. Then it's back in the car and on to north Wales. Hardly the best way to appreciate nature.